Given at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, Farm Street, on the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 8th October 2023
Pope Francis has spoken many resounding words in recent weeks. But the words that touched me most deeply were spoken during the World Youth Day in Lisbon. ‘Todos, todos, todos’, he cried. The Church is for ‘everyone, everyone, everyone’. Here is an appeal that comes from his heart and should reach the heart of each one of us.
He explained a little more what he meant in a reply given in a press conference. He stressed that the life of the Church is not simply a test of conformity. Rather, he said this:
‘Everyone meets God on their own way inside the Church, and the Church is mother and guides everyone on their own path.... Everyone, everyone in prayer, in inner dialogue, in pastoral dialogue, looks for the way forward…. There is a kind of gaze that doesn’t understand this insertion of the Church as mother and thinks of it as a kind of “corporation” that you have to do this, or do it in this way and not another way, in order to get in. I don’t like reduction. The Church is “mother” receiving everyone, and everyone makes their own way within the Church, without publicity, and this is very important.’
Of course, in this ‘looking for a way forward’, the Pope always talks about ‘discernment’: the art of coming to see the next step which I must take if I am truly to follow the pathway of Jesus. Discernment starts with the acknowledgement that little in my life is perfect and that the call of Christ to conversion is constantly addressed to me. Discernment is about acknowledging who I am, what my true destiny really is, and that the pattern of my journey home is laid out clearly by Jesus. In making that journey we need to recognise what is needed. Among the essentials is that we are always embraced by a cloak of mercy. Jesus is the teacher of the truth and the giver of mercy.
Now the Gospel we have just heard speaks loudly to me of this matter. Those who had been entrusted with care of the vineyard simply failed to acknowledge who they actually were, and what was their actual situation. They were not being clear-sighted and so they lost their way. And in doing so they turned their backs on the most important thing of all. The ending of the parable is clear: what they had rejected was, in fact, the key to their happiness and salvation.
Why did they fail to see? What was going on for them that they rejected the cornerstone of all they truly longed for? This is an aspect of the parable we could reflect on for a moment.
I see it like this.
In the first place, the tenants wanted the produce, the profit from the vineyard, for themselves. Clearly it was a profitable business. But they did not want to give what was due to the owner, wanting it instead for themselves, ignoring other duties. It was, then, greed that blinded them.
Perhaps that touches us occasionally. We treasure what we have and do not want to change, to recognise other responsibilities, whether they be to the poor, or to the Lord himself. This is a threat to the soundness of our discernment.
Then, secondly, I thought that the tenants of the vineyard would probably have been afraid that they were going to be dispossessed, especially when a larger number of the agents of the owner turned up. That was too much of a risk. So they again turned their backs on reality and struck out in fear against their only true Master.
Following the Lord always has an element of entering the unknown. That can indeed be frightening. Stepping out as a conclusion of a careful discernment can often involve real risks, away from a familiar comfort zone. This means that we can often fail to take that step first time round, or even second or third time, too. Only slowly and gradually do we submit our lives to the Lord and to the guidance of his Holy Spirit.
Then the Gospel takes us one step further. The tenants kill the son. They justify doing so by saying that it will enable them ‘to take over his inheritance’. In other words, the vineyard will then be their own property.
Perhaps this is the biggest obstacle to true and humble discernment: the sense, so common in our culture, that what I have, who I am, is for me to decide. Breathing this air, we can easily come to believe that whatever I have or have achieved is mine, to do with it whatever I wish. In this way we enter a way of thinking and reflecting that all I have, all I am, is a possession and not a gift.
This fundamental truth of being recipients of a gift, so easily forgotten today, applies across the board: to our relationship with the created world, to how we see ourselves, to how we use the fruit of our work, to how we relate to worldly success and reputation. When we believe that we are the true owners rather than grateful recipients of a gift, for which we are then responsible, then we do indeed reject the cornerstone of our lives and live a truncated version of humanity, devoid of lasting happiness and enduring hope.
Pastoral discernment is a key part of the life of the Church, both now and, in fact, always. But it requires an asceticism which is far from our natural inclinations and customs. Our inclinations are more centred on self-justification, or making excuses, or on confrontational disputations.
Here at Mass we learn different lessons. We learn that, in truth, all is gift: our humble offering of bread and wine becomes the supreme gift of the food of eternity, the banquet of heaven at which there is no pecking order other than the Kingship of Christ himself. Here we learn the very opposite of self-assertion. We become humble yet joyful servants, so fully aware of our failings yet eternally grateful for his merciful welcome and embrace. Here we quieten our demands and simply accept his gifts. And so we leave every celebration of Mass freed from fear and ready to share with others all that we have received or, indeed, achieved.
May the Lord always guide our hearts and minds in his ways of gracious humility, by which we may walk, step by step, to be closer to him in whom we find our lasting peace and joy, our salvation. Amen.
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster